What Is a Subject Matter Expert?

Definition & Examples of Subject Matter Experts

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A subject matter expert is an individual with a deep understanding of a particular job, process, department, function, technology, machine, material or type of equipment.

Learn more about what they do and when they're needed.

What Is a Subject Matter Expert?

Individuals designated as subject matter experts are typically sought out by others interested in leveraging their unique expertise to solve specific problems or help meet challenges. Subject matter experts in some fields often serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits and other legal actions.

While it is common to find them in technical disciplines, subject matter experts can exist in all disciplines and functions. It is common to find them in information technology, software development, marketing, and customer support and all other areas in a business.

Acronym: SME

How Subject Matter Experts Work

It's common to draw upon a subject matter expert when attempting to navigate challenges. While many professionals are cross-trained in their particular functions, some situations call for highly specialized knowledge.

  • Information technology professionals will call upon various subject matter experts for insights into integrating new software applications or, fixing bugs or anomalies discovered during testing.
  • Architects and engineers will call upon experts when considering new building technologies or design approaches.
  • Project teams engage subject matter experts when their more generalized knowledge of a topic is insufficient for the problem in front of them.
  • In the legal industry, expert witnesses are typically highly specialized subject matter experts called upon to testify in court cases, especially liability lawsuits. 
  • Innovators striving to apply new technologies or advancements will often draw upon the originators or external specialists to help them solve specific technical or business challenges. 
  • Companies will often use subject matter experts to help develop training programs or invite them as instructors when training in particular areas.

Subject matter experts are vital to helping groups solve highly specific problems where their general expertise proves insufficient. For example:

  • An expert on a particular operating system may help a company assess whether a new application is compatible with others.
  • A data management specialist may help a team understand how to extract and format the data for a marketing project.
  • An expert on a particular chemical may testify in court to the proper use or misuse of it in commercial environments.
  • A social media marketing subject matter expert may train the members of a marketing team on how to build a social media campaign.
  • An expert on autoimmune diseases may be a leading contributor to medical journals on the subject and a frequent speaker at medical conferences.

Requirements for Subject Matter Experts

Typically, subject matter experts have developed their expertise in their particular discipline over a long period of time and after a great deal of immersion in the topic. Many subject matter experts have pursued advanced degrees in their area of specialization.

Additionally, the experts maintain a rigorous program of continuous study in their field. This helps ensure the SME individual maintains current and complete knowledge of their specific area of expertise.

Many subject matter experts are active as authors and have published books or articles on their topic of expertise. Others serve as educators in college and universities.

Developing as a subject matter expert takes time, experience, and intense research and study. Many career professionals prefer to remain, generalists, drawing upon the right subject matter experts at the right time to navigate unique and complex challenges.

Limitations of Subject Matter Experts

The highly specialized knowledge of the subject matter introduces some risk when dealing with broader systems issues. For example, while someone might be the expert on a particular type of software application, they may not understand how it interacts in concert with newer software applications outside of their expertise. Or a technical support expert may not be familiar with how a product works in particular situations or environments. It is important for experts and other professionals to recognize when even highly specialized knowledge is insufficient to diagnose and remedy a unique problem properly.

Key Takeaways

  • A subject matter expert (SME) is an individual with a deep understanding of a particular topic.
  • Many SMEs have several years of experience and advanced degrees in their topic of choice and continue to study it rigorously.
  • SMEs are used across different industries and can help solve problems when general expertise is insufficient.
  • Sometimes subject matter experts are used as expert witnesses in court cases.